NEW YORK – The last of four men convicted in an FBI sting operation was sentenced Wednesday to 25 years in prison by a judge who said she was not proud of her government for its role in nurturing the plot to bomb synagogues and shoot down military planes with missiles.
U.S. District Judge Colleen McMahon took another swipe at the government's handling of the case as she gave Laguerre Payen the same mandatory minimum prison term that she handed down in June to his three co-defendants: James Cromitie, David Williams and Onta Williams. She singled out Cromitie as the group's leader.
"The essence of what occurred here was that a government, understandably zealous to protect its citizens, created acts of terrorism out of the fantasies and the bravado and the bigotry of one man in particular and four men generally and then made these fantasies come true," she said. "The government made them terrorists. ... I am not proud of my government for what it did in this case."
McMahon spoke after Payen, in an unusual courtroom twist, took his opportunity to speak at sentencing to ask the judge in a soft and hushed tone, "Am I a terrorist?"
The 29-year-old said the conviction didn't make sense to him. "Am I what they say, an extremist? Am I guilty?"
The judge said the word "terrorist" had been stretched beyond her understanding of it over the last decade.
"I can tell you this. You were prepared to do a terrible thing and you tried to do a terrible thing and you tried to do it for a terrible reason," she said. "Maybe it doesn't make you a terrorist, but it makes you a criminal. It makes you guilty of a hideous crime."
Later, she added: "If terrorism is a crime of ideology, then you are no terrorist, but for money."
Payen then gave a rambling, stammering statement filled with long pauses in which he said he felt railroaded.
"I'm not guilty," he said. "I wasn't going to do nothing. I wasn't going to do that stuff or nothing like that. But, you know, this case like a big theater. They don't show everything. They destroy evidence and everything. And, you know, stuff that should be on camera isn't there."
The four men were convicted in October 2009 of conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and other charges, including a count of attempting to acquire or use antiaircraft missiles that carried the mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison.
The sting began in 2008 after an FBI informant was assigned to infiltrate a mosque in Newburgh, about 70 miles north of New York City. Prosecutors said the informant was approached by Cromitie, who explained that his parents had lived in Afghanistan and he was upset about the war there.
The government said Cromitie expressed an interest in returning to Afghanistan and said that if he were to die a martyr, he would go to paradise. It said he also expressed interest in doing "something in America."
The men's trial featured two weeks of testimony by the informant, Pakistani immigrant Shahed Hussain.
After meeting Cromitie at the mosque, Hussain told him he was a representative of a Pakistani terrorist organization that was eager to finance a holy war on U.S. soil.
Prosecutors alleged that in meetings with Hussain, Cromitie hatched the scheme to blow up the synagogues in the Bronx with remote-controlled bombs and to shoot down cargo planes at the Air National Guard base in Newburgh with heat-seeking missiles. They said he also recruited the other men to be lookouts with promises of money. Onta and David Williams are not related.
The informant provided the men with fake bombs and an inert shoulder missile launcher. Agents arrested the four in 2009 after they planted the fake bombs in the Riverdale section of the Bronx while under heavy surveillance.
In one of several videos played at trial, the men were seen inspecting the missile launcher in a bugged warehouse in Connecticut two weeks before the planned attack. At the end of the tape, Cromitie, two of his cohorts and the informant bow their heads in prayer.
Jurors also heard tapes of Cromitie ranting against Jews and U.S. military aggression in the Middle East.
In a release, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Payen's punishment was deserved. "Although these weapons were fake, the defendant believed they were real, and today's sentence underscores the gravity of these crimes."
Payen is illegally in the U.S. from Haiti. McMahon said he likely will be deported after he completes his sentence in conditions that are likely to be harsh.
During the two-month trial, Payen spent part of the time chained to a wheelchair with handcuffs and shackles after the judge concluded he was faking mental illness with claims he was seeing "fogs, lights, the Virgin Mary, ghosts, dead people, bugs crawling on him and people demanding to play chess."
Still, McMahon ordered that he continue to be evaluated for mental disorders, which would determine where he should serve his sentence. She said her finding that he sometimes fakes mental illness does not mean he has no mental health issues.
At one point Wednesday, Payen defended his actions in the case, saying: "I was just selling a dream. ... They told me to sell them a dream."
He reflected on the trial as well, speculating that efforts to determine his sanity might have been misdirected.
"The whole time, I'm like floating in the air. I'm like on Cloud 9, just watching it all. And I'm like, 'This is crazy,'" he recalled.